Beware of the Single Story

A few days ago, I read Steve Almond’s essay for The New York Times, Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time.’ In this essay, he laments the demise of the Narrator and their telling of a unifying story that enables us to make sense of our world and provides us with greater meaning. He argues that these storytellers, men (uh um) like Mark Twain and Zola and Dickens and Tolstoy, told stories that didn’t “just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge[d] our moral imagination. They offer[ed] a sweeping depiction of the world that help[ed] us clarify our role in it.”

While I agree with many of Almond’s claims in this essay about the demise of the narrator, I’m troubled by his refusal (or failure) to discuss the damaging effects that Grand Stories/Unified Narratives by a Narrator have had on all of us and our understandings of other perspectives and experiences. Yes, “narration represents the human capacity to tell stories in such a manner that they yield meaning.” However, this meaning is not singular and should not be revealed or articulated by any single Storyteller.

I’m reminded of a recent TED talk I watched by the amazing storyteller, Chimananda Adichie: The Danger of the Single Story.

In this talk, she discusses the dangers of hearing (or telling) only one story about a community or a nation, describing how it flattens out and stereotypes the experiences of that community or nation, ignoring or suppressing meanings that don’t fit with the dominant narrative. In our quest for a unified, singular story that brings us together (Almond mentions Obama’s failure as a narrator to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”), what stories, meanings, and experiences are we leaving out?

By linking the bad storytelling skills of his creative writing students with a larger problem of a loss of meaning and a lack of a narrator, Almond presents us with an either/or choice. Either we have a Narrator that tells a story that provides us with meaning and that invites us to collaborate on making that story real. Or we have too many unreliable narrators that only tell superficial, profit-driven stories that encourage passive consumption over active creation and collaboration. Is the choice that simple? Or that reductive? Can we build off of Adichie’s brilliant storytelling about the dangers of a single story to imagine ways of creating meaning that aren’t predicated on just one story or one Narrator?

I don’t have time to write much more about this article. However, I must briefly mention his harsh condemnation of the internet as contributing to the loss of the narrator and the death of the novel. He writes:

Our latest innovation, the Internet, was hailed as an information highway that would help us manage the world’s complexity. In theory, it grants all of us tremendous narrative power, by providing instant access to our assembled archive of human knowledge and endeavor.

In practice, the Internet functions more frequently as a hive of distraction, a simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole. The pleasures of surfing the Web — a retreat from sustained attention and self-reflection — are the opposite of those offered by a novel.

I don’t entirely disagree with what he says, but it’s only one story (and not THE story) about the internet and how people are using it to engage or dis-engage with the world outside of (or beside/s) themselves. What stories about critical, creative and meaningful uses of and engagements online are ignored when we rely on Almond’s story to provide us with meaning about the internet? Does he, as he suggests the Storyteller used to do, invite us to collaborate and make the world he imagines real? Or, does his story only center on lamenting what has been lost?